Juvenile Justice Reform

THESIS STATEMENT: The Great and General Court of Massachusetts has erred
in reforming the juvenile justice system by implementing policies and
procedures that will harm juveniles and place society at risk.

On July 23, 1995, an intruder brutally attacked and stabbed Janet
Downing approximately 100 times in her Somerville home. The revolting
Downing murder and ensuing arrest of Edward O\'Brien Jr., a 15-year-old
juvenile whom prosecutors say committed the heinous crime, sent
shockwaves through the state. When Somerville District Court Judge Paul
P. Hefferman ruled that the Commonwealth try Mr. O\'Brien as a juvenile,
those shockwaves grew in intensity, and the citizens of Massachusetts,
fed up with increasing youth violence and perceptions of an ineffective
juvenile justice system, demanded the enactment of tough new laws to
deal with repeat and violent juvenile offenders. The Great and General
Court of Massachusetts headed these demands for reform of the juvenile
justice system and enacted legislation that, among other things,
abolishes the trial de novo system in the juvenile courts, requires the
trial of juveniles charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape,
forcible rape of a child, kidnaping, assault with intent to rob or
murder and armed burglary in adult court and permits prosecutors to open
to the public juvenile proceedings when they seek an adult sentence.
Although proponents tout these measures as a sagacious solution for the
vexatious problem of juvenile delinquency, abolishing the trial de novo
system, providing for automatic adult trials and opening juvenile
proceedings to the public when prosecutors seek an adult sentence works
to the detriment, not the benefit, of juveniles and society. Therefore,
the policy makers of Massachusetts should repeal most sections of the
Juvenile Justice Reform Act and develop other policies to deal with the
rising problem of juvenile crime.


Proponents of a single trial system for juveniles argue that the trial
de novo system wastes judicial resources by giving defendants a second
bite at the apple and traumatizes victims and witnesses by forcing them
to testify at two proceedings. However, these proponents fail to
acknowledge that the de novo system allows judges to quickly provide
juveniles with the rehabilitative help they need. The proponents,
unsurprisingly, also fail to acknowledge that a single trial system may
place a greater burden on judicial resources and a similar burden on
victims and witnesses.
The de novo system benefits juveniles by encouraging bench trials,
which frequently result in the swift administration of rehabilitative
help. For many juveniles, delinquency is a reaction to a variety of
situational stressors. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of
juvenile delinquents are exposed to abuse and neglect, harsh or erratic
parenting, and socioeconomic deprivation. Experts believe that if the
juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles and make them
productive members of our society, it must address these problems as
swiftly as possible. A de novo system encourages juveniles, many of
whom want judicial help, to request a bench trial. Likewise, under a de
novo system, defense attorneys are encouraged to recommend an initial
bench trial because the court\'s decision does not bind clients if it is
not in their interest. On the other hand, a single trial system
discourages juveniles and defense attorneys from requesting a bench
trial. Because jury trials are more lengthy than bench trials and may
drag out for over a year, the current policy of encouraging juveniles to
seek an initial jury trial denies them the rehabilitative help they need
for a significant period of time. Therefore, the de novo system is the
preferred choice when dealing with juveniles because it encourages bench
trials and, concomitantly, the swift administration of rehabilitative
As noted earlier, one of the primary arguments for doing away with the
de novo system is that it wastes judicial resources. However, upon
closer examination one realizes that the de novo system actually
furthers judicial economy. Under a de novo system, procedural
safeguards can be done away with or relaxed at bench trials without fear
of violating rights of defendants. Courts have found the elimination of
procedural safeguards at bench trials in a de novo system to be
constitutional because the judiciary will extend all safeguards to the
defendant at a new jury trial if he/she so chooses. Although no
statistics could be found which indicate the number of defendants
appealing de novo bench trial decision, a court employee estimates that
it was around 3%. Thus, 97% of juvenile cases were disposed of through
bench trials, which are less costly